- Tips for Facing Fear Foods in Eating Disorder Recovery
- Still Have Fear Foods? Here’s How to Conquer Them
- The list goes on and on…
- Making a plan
- 1. Eat
- It takes time
- The Importance of Incorporating Fear and Challenge Foods in Recovery
- 1. The longer you avoid something, the scarier it can become
- 2. Incorporating challenge foods helps you to determine your true taste preferences
- 3. Adding in fear foods helps to counter “good food vs. bad food” beliefs
- 4. Eating fear foods allows you to challenge the idea of “perfect eating.”
- 5. Including feared foods helps you practice eating them in a normal and sustainable way
- 6. Incorporating challenge foods is a big step towards achieving a relaxed, enjoyable relationship with food
- 7. Learning to eat fear foods can help you prevent relapse
Tips for Facing Fear Foods in Eating Disorder Recovery
For individuals who are recovering from a restrictive eating disorder, one important component of their treatment is to face their “fear” or “trigger” foods. For many people in recovery this task can seem incredibly daunting-and it may be difficult to know where to start.
Some people may put this challenge off by telling themselves that they will face these foods, when they are feeling less afraid or when the eating disorder voice is quieter.
However, the paradox of this is that you will only begin to feel less afraid by gradually exposing yourself to what you are afraid of. Susan Jeffers, Ph.D.
, exemplified this in her book entitled “Feel The Fear…And Do it Anyway” when she stated,
“I had grown up waiting for the fear to go away before I took any chances. When I am no longer afraid…then! For most of my life I had played the when/then game and it never worked..Fear of particular situations dissolved when I finally confronted them. The doing it comes before the fear goes away.”
Ultimately, fear is a normal part of any process that causes personal growth. However, it is possible to feel afraid and to do a behavioral action anyways.
Further, the reality is that you cannot fully recover from a restrictive eating disorder without challenging your food rules and fears.
Although eating disorders are way more complex than just being about food-one critical aspect of the recovery process is normalizing your relationship with food-in part by pushing yourself your comfort zone.
Now I’m certainly not saying that it is going to be easy to eat the foods that your eating disorder voice is telling you to avoid at all costs-however if you wish to find freedom, it is necessary to challenge yourself (in small steps). The following are some tips for facing your fear foods in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder.
1. Write a list of your fear foods starting with the ones that are least challenging to the most challenging.
The goal of challenging your fear foods/food rules is to gradually step your comfort zone in a way that is anxiety provoking, but does not feel completely unsafe.
Therefore, it can be helpful to start by making a list of the foods that are the least challenging-up to the ones that are the most challenging.
This way you can ensure that you face your food fears in a way that is more gradual, by starting from the bottom of the list and slowly working your way up.
Also, it is important that you expose yourself to same fear food multiple times before moving on to the next one. Recovery isn't a race and it's ok and normal if this process takes some time.
You can determine that you are ready to move on to the next fear food in your hierarchy, if your anxiety has significantly decreased in response to the particular food that you have been repeatedly exposing yourself to.
If you want to make the list more comprehensive you could include a scale where you rate each food from 1-10 in terms of how anxiety provoking it is.
Additionally, you could have a space next to each food to record your thoughts and feelings prior to and following each exposure.
For some it can be helpful to write what your eating disorder voice is telling you about each food, and then to write a statement from your healthy voice underneath.
2. Start by pairing the more challenging food with a less challenging food.
Another technique used by some is that for each exposure they pair the challenge food with a less scary food-so as not to overwhelm themselves. This is not another “rule” which you have to follow and it is important to figure out which method works for you, but this is one strategy that some people might find to be helpful.
If you feel ready to do two challenge foods at once-go for it! There is no “right” or “wrong” way to go about these exposures. It really is about finding out which approach works best for you and your recovery.
Additionally, it is critical to be mindful that you are not engaging in any compensatory behaviors following the exposure, as this will not allow your anxiety to naturally come down on it's own and only serves to strengthen your eating disorder voice.
3. Find a support person who can assist you in facing your fear foods.
When your eating disorder voice is very loud, it may be highly difficult to disobey it on your own. Finding support when facing your fear foods can be incredibly helpful in your eating disorder recovery.
For instance, if you have a therapist, nutritionist, or mentor, you could consider asking them if they would be willing to eat some of your challenge foods with you.
If you do not have access to a treatment team asking a friend, partner, or family member to eat your challenge foods with you could be helpful.
It is important to let whomever you decide to be your support, know what you need from them in that moment.
For instance, you might tell your mom that you would for her to eat one of your fear foods with you-and that you want to talk about things other than food while doing so.
Just try to ensure that the person, whom you choose to do some of the exposures with does not have their own issues surrounding food and weight-as that could be highly triggering.
If you don’t have a support person in your life who can do this with you-another option is to receive support over the phone prior to or following an exposure exercise. One resource for finding support of someone who is in strong recovery from an eating disorder is MentorConnect. You can check out their website here: http://www.mentorconnect-ed.org
4. Work to practice self-compassion.
It’s important to note that in facing your fear foods-you are doing something that is amazingly brave. True strength is not denying yourself food or avoiding certain foods-rather it is facing your fear foods despite what the eating disorder voice may be screaming at you.
However, it is critical that you try to practice self-compassion and be gentle with yourself-especially for any perceived “mistakes” that you may make in the recovery process.
Beating yourself up for not doing a food challenge “perfectly” will not help your in your recovery journey.
Additionally, it is normal to feel very scared and control. It is ok that you are feeling this way and the fact that you are trying to challenge yourself shows so much courage. This is the time to be kind to yourself because you are battling an illness, which you certainly did not choose to have. However, full recovery from an eating disorder is possible-it is never too late.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a mental health therapist who specializes in working with adolescents, survivors of trauma, mood disorders, and eating disorders. Jennifer is a blogger for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. She is also a regular contributing writer for Eating Disorder Hope, as well as a variety of other websites.
For body-positive, recovery inspiration connect with Jennifer on .
Still Have Fear Foods? Here’s How to Conquer Them
I still remember the days I was afraid of food. Yet today, I can eat everything I want without feeling guilty, sad or disappointed.
Not long away, that was just a dream. And I don’t take it for granted now that it is my reality.
The list goes on and on…
I was afraid of so many foods. You name it, ice cream, pizza, pasta, oily foods, bread… Basically, I was scared of all the food that I enjoyed. I was so deprived that I couldn’t stop eating them once I had a bite- so I avoided them all together.
My fears of those foods were so real that I would have panic attacks if they were served to me. I even got into arguments with friends and family because I would refuse to eat them.
I would bring my own food to family reunions and would only order foods my eating disorder deemed “acceptable”.
And if there was a rare occasion when I let myself have a prohibited foods, I would have to compromise for it somehow.
“I need to go work out because I had half a _______.” Or “I’m not eating breakfast because I had _______ for dinner last night.”
I was still punishing myself for eating what I wanted, and I hated that feeling.
Although I was nervous around food and meals were stressful if they weren’t as planned, I was still better than the days when I was binging and purging or not eating at all.
At least I was eating. And since this was the only issue that I was dealing with, nobody said anything.
Making a plan
Then one day, I decided I was ready for a change. I was done living my life with a list of fear foods. It was finally time to conquer them.
When I made the conscious choice to repair my relationship with food, I came up with a plan. I am a strategist by nature and I can only see the end goal if I write down the way on how I will be accomplishing it.
Here’s what my plan looked :
Plan a fun dinner with friends where I order french fries and something super fatty and delicious that I would never order, mac and cheese. Just go for it! Do this once a week.
No more magazines or TV shows that are considered trash.
Throw the scale and all the measuring cups. Vow to stop looking at calories.
Do a 10 minutes meditation every day. Envision yourself having a peaceful relationship with food during this meditation.
Have goals that aren’t related to food or weight. My first goal was to read a book per month, which led me to join a book club and introduced me to new friends (win!).
It takes time
I can honestly say that it took about a year for me and food to have a happy relationship. But I started feeling better within 3 months of following my plan of action.
So, if you’re still living in fear of food, make a vow to repair your relationship to food- right now! Maybe you’re me and a concrete plan will work. Or you may start with one goal at a time. Or you might decide to work this out with your treatment team.
The Importance of Incorporating Fear and Challenge Foods in Recovery
Contributed by: Rebecca Hart, RD, LDN and Caitlin Royster, RD, LDN, Registered Dietitians at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt
As registered dietitians at an eating disorder treatment program, we have the privilege of working on a daily basis with people of all ages and genders as they recover from their eating disorders.
A question we frequently hear from our patients with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder is: “Why does it matter if I incorporate my fear foods if I am able to meet my nutritional needs without them? Or, “Do I really need to eat [insert fear food here] to get better?”
In an effort to help support healing, here are eight reasons to incorporate fear foods or challenge foods during eating disorder recovery and to challenge the “at least I’m eating” mindset that can lead to relapse.
1. The longer you avoid something, the scarier it can become
We find that individuals do best when they expose themselves to a fear food and work through the difficult feelings using healthy coping strategies to decrease anxiety. Once is not enough. Behavioral rehearsal – or the repetitive practicing of a behavior and appropriate response – is important.
The more you do it, the easier and less anxiety-provoking it becomes over time. The alternative – continuing to avoid a fear food – leads to more fear, increased anxiety, and reinforced negative thoughts about your perceived inability to eat that item.
2. Incorporating challenge foods helps you to determine your true taste preferences
Everyone has true taste preferences – foods with tastes they really and foods with tastes they really do not . Over time, in people with eating disorders, natural preferences can become confused with eating disorder preferences.
It is important to reintroduce all foods to clearly determine one’s true motives for removing them. Individuals are then able to choose from a place of personal preference, not a weight-related fear or distortion, whether they a particular food.
3. Adding in fear foods helps to counter “good food vs. bad food” beliefs
At the heart of it, food is just food. Sustenance. Energy. There are no good or bad foods.
We teach our patients how to incorporate all foods and to do so with balance and moderation. For some people, this means encouraging more fruits and vegetables. For others, this means teaching them that carbohydrates are not inherently bad and actually serve important physiological purposes.
Even people without eating disorders may struggle with assigning moral value (good/bad, clean/toxic, etc.) to specific foods which can lead to negative thoughts when eating them. For example, “I shouldn’t have eaten XYZ again; I’m so weak. I’ve been so bad.
I need to cleanse” This type of thinking can lead to feeling of guilt, shame and decreased self-esteem. Having a healthy relationship with all foods is a message more of the general public can benefit from, not just those in recovery from eating disorders.
4. Eating fear foods allows you to challenge the idea of “perfect eating.”
There is no such thing as perfection when it comes to food or eating. In fact, striving to eat “perfectly” can have negative consequences. A rigid approach to food doesn’t allow for flexibility or enjoyment. Trying to adhere to a “perfect” diet can also have social consequences.
Many people with eating disorders become isolated and avoid social gatherings that involve foods that don’t fit within their predetermined “perfect” plan. Learning to eat fear foods is important in breaking this isolation and perfectionism trap.
5. Including feared foods helps you practice eating them in a normal and sustainable way
If you struggle with binging and purging or other compensatory behaviors, you may think it’s best to just stop eating the foods that most often trigger those symptoms.
However, completely avoiding “trigger foods” often exacerbates cravings, promotes overeating and perpetuates the binge-purge-restrict cycle. The goal of recovery is to normalize food, not to escape it.
6. Incorporating challenge foods is a big step towards achieving a relaxed, enjoyable relationship with food
It is perfectly okay to have a piece of cake at a birthday party – or any day at all really. It’s just fine to enjoy a glass of apple cider on a crisp fall day. Desserts, caloric beverages, and other common fear foods are all part of a normal, healthy diet.
Eating is, by design, supposed to be pleasurable. You are allowed to (and deserve to) eat foods you enjoy. Remember: this is nourishing for both your body and your mind!
7. Learning to eat fear foods can help you prevent relapse
While you may technically be following your meal plan, without incorporating fear foods you are still giving the eating disorder a major foothold by preserving fear and anxiety. It might seem choosing safe foods is better than acting on symptoms.
However, over time this restriction can snowball and lead back to progressively worsening eating disorder symptoms. In fact, Schebendach et al.
, (2008) found that diets lower in energy density and variety were associated with poor treatment outcomes in weight-restored women with anorexia (1).
In other words, individuals who incorporated more variety in their meals, including higher density foods, were more ly to maintain their recovery over the long-term.
Ultimately, treatment and recovery from an eating disorder takes time. It often involves small changes that build on each other.
If you are ready to incorporate fear or challenge foods, try starting with one food at a time, one meal at a time.
These small, realistic, and manageable changes are more effective and more ly to be maintained than sitting down to a meal where every single item is a fear or challenge food.
You may be at a point in your recovery where eating the meal plan is all you can manage.
This is reasonable at various points in the recovery process, but should not be a long-term strategy given that we know it ultimately impedes full recovery.
The eventual goal is to be able to enjoy all foods in moderation without guilt or shame. This is true freedom from your eating disorder.
About the Authors: Rebecca Hart, RD, LDN and Caitlin Royster, RD, LDN are Registered Dietitians at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. Both provide medical nutrition therapy and nutrition education to patients at the inpatient, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient levels of care. Rebecca also serves as The Center for Eating Disorders’ Nutrition Care Coordinator.
: Schebendach JE, Mayer LES, Devlin MJ, Attia E, Contento IR, Wolf RL, and Walsh BT. Dietary energy density and diet variety as predictors of outcome in anorexia nervosa. Am J Clin Nutr 2008; 87:810-6.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 19, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com